Coronavirus Does For East Hampton What The FAA Wouldn’t Do

East Hampton Airport, normally bustling with charter helicopters and seaplanes in May, has seen almost none of either because of the effects of the coronavirus epidemic. Michael Wright

Just as the volume of seasonal commuter aircraft flights to the South Fork would typically be increasingly significantly on weekends — driving residents of the neighborhoods under its approaches to distraction — the coronavirus epidemic has all but halted the much-maligned roar of helicopters using the airport.

East Hampton Airport, HTO as it’s known to aviators and avi-haters alike, has resembled a much younger version of itself over the last seven weeks.

Most of the flights in and out of the airport in the last several weeks have been by small, privately-owned propeller planes and a relatively small number of corporate jets and helicopters being utilized by their owners.

Gone are the swarms of dozens of “chartered” helicopters and seaplanes shuttling mixed groups of weekenders who needed only to click a smart-phone app and shell out as little as $700 for a single one-way seat in an aircraft.

That model depended largely on several unrelated people bucking-up for the total cost of a charter, which typically runs several thousand dollars, but in the age of coronavirus and social distancing, its appeal has been tossed out like a drained split of complimentary champagne.

An entire industry that had arisen almost entirely on the back of East Hampton Airport — and on the nerves of those who live beneath the approach routes — has been effectively grounded, and is faced with a particularly uncertain future for the 2020 summer season.
Jeff Smith, vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, a helicopter pilots advocacy group, said on Friday that the coronavirus has been “devastating” to his industry, and acknowledged that relief may not be swift.

There are currently no governmental restrictions on the flights of chartered helicopters, but the health concerns and social distancing guidelines have essentially erased the shared-charter niche that had exploded in the industry in the last decade and powered companies like Blade to success and ubiquity.

“People are hunkered down and don’t want to be flying,” Mr. Smith said during a teleconferenced meeting of the East Hampton Town Airport Management Advisory Committee, noting that while helicopters are still flying, the main change has been in the breadth of the market that can afford to commute by helicopter now — and may take awhile to find its way back into the air. “Blade’s niche was reaching into a demographic that wouldn’t normally fly out. I don’t see their market going out and leasing their own helicopter.”

East Hampton Airport Manager James Brundige said that analysis of the airport’s landing data bears out the drastic changes. There were just 13 helicopter “operations” the weekend of May 8-10 — likely representing only five or six helicopter trips, counting both landings and take-offs — Mr. Brundige said on Tuesday. In comparison, during the second weekend of May in 2019, May 10-12, there were 68 helicopter operations.

While privately owned helicopters have continued to use the airport, trips by seaplanes — which became more popular with commuter charter companies after the town’s noise-relative curfews were imposed in 2016 — have ceased entirely. There have been no seaplane landings at the airport in the last month, Mr. Brundige said.

Most of the traffic has been by piston engine aircraft — small propeller planes — based at the airport, and jets owned by people with homes locally.

“Those people are still going to come and go,” Mr. Brundige said. But they are flying primarily with family, unlike on flights aboard chartered helicopters with what could be several strangers.

“I don’t think anyone is going to be crowd sharing anything,” Mr. Brundige said.

“You can’t achieve social distancing in any aircraft, really,” echoed Steve Tuma, owner of Sound Aircraft Services, which provides aviation services at the airport. Most of those disembarking from private jets, he said, have had sizeable loads of luggage in tow, a sign he surmised meant they planned on staying for a while.

The drop-off in helicopter traffic gives those tasked with dealing with the airport and its complications a unique view of what could be.

Members of the Town Board have said that if the number of helicopter flights into the airport cannot be tamped down considerably, they will consider closing the airport entirely in 2021 when strings attached to decades-old federal grants expire.

Most of the current board members have said they would rather not close the airport but see the threat as a real possibility — and a negotiating tool — if changes are not achieved.
The main path to achieving the sought after-reductions has been seen as extensively limiting or eliminating the shared charter model of helicopter commuting, which the town has said effectively amounts to a legal work around allowing otherwise banned scheduled commercial flights in and out of the airport.

In 2015, the Town Board adopted curfews on flights into and out of the airport and a limit on the number of flights that a given aircraft could make into the airport per week — a restriction specifically targeting the steadily swelling charter fleet. The laws were challenged in court, and the direct limit was never allowed to take effect, while the curfews were left in place through two summers before being thrown out by a federal court.
Since then, town lawmakers have searched for a new way to rein in the chopper fleet.

“We have a real time experiment in something we have talked about,” said David Gruber, a longtime critic of the airport’s operations. “I’ve said that in terms of annoyance, the light aircraft and based aircraft aren’t really a problem. It would be interesting to know what the complaints are.”

There is some evidence that not everyone in the “noise affected community,” as those who live under flight paths have come to be known, agrees with Mr. Gruber.

Mr. Brundige said that complaints about flights have continued to flow in, if at lower volume, but now focus on the aircraft that are in the sky. Most complaints filed have been aimed at the small propeller planes that suddenly once again make up the bulk of the air traffic, some at jets and many at aircraft not using East Hampton Airport at all.

“It’s not the noise of the aircraft, it’s just the existence of any aircraft at all,” said Kathryn Slye, a pilot and a fierce critic of the Town Board’s use of closing the airport as a negotiating tool. “The complainers are just complaining about whatever they see.”

Mr. Brundige said that there seems to be more flights that have nothing to do with the local airports transiting the area simply because, he surmised, there is less aviation traffic in the air around HTO to be avoided.

Some of the most staunch opponents of the airport’s operations, said that the impacts on those bothered by plane noise cannot be discounted simply because they are still bothered.

“Noise is noise,” said Teresa McCaskie, a Southold Town resident who has been a frequent critic of the impacts aircraft using HTO have on North Fork neighborhoods. “It’s about disrupting your daily life.”

Noyac resident John Kirrane said that he sees the aircraft complaints continuing because people are in their homes more now, and are irritated by the noise of airplanes overhead and leaf blowers over the fence.

He also surmised that those who have been rattled and sensitized to aircraft noise from years of thundering helicopter flights, may indeed now be rattled by the sound of small planes in the absence of the background din of choppers.

“I was never a smoker, but I’m told people who stopped smoking start tasting food they’d never tasted before,” Mr. Kirrane said, comparing the awareness of those under flight paths to now being aware of small planes. “This is the same, and now that the helicopter noise is gone, they are more sensitive to the noise that is there. Small planes before, they may not have taken notice of it because of the noise from the helicopters.”